Are Americans tiring of individual liberty?
It sure seems so. How else can you explain the proliferation of laws that regulate the most mundane aspects of our lives, and the mostly passive reaction of Americans to the ever increasing micromanagement of our lives?
Liberty has always been a tougher sell than many of us assume. We all want the freedom to do as we like, but few of us are as committed to allowing others to act contrary to our notion of right and wrong. Majorities have always sought and often found ways to impose their views upon minorities. The most vocal minorities have often been successful in imposing their will on the majority, at least for a time.
So there is nothing new about threats to Individual liberty being a daily part of our lives. What is new is that the institutional barriers to regulating our daily lives have effectively broken down. It took a Constitutional Amendment to pass prohibition of alcohol (and repeal it). Who today expects a Constitutional fight over smoking, obesity, trans-fats, or any of the myriad personal issues now under the purview of government control?
America was founded on the belief that government power should be strictly limited, because the alternative to limited power was unlimited power. The framers of the Constitution were rightly concerned that without strict institutional barriers to the expansion of government powers there would eventually be no barriers at all. Power, in any form, longs to be absolute.
Unfortunately, the concept of limited government is becoming an anachronism in today’s America.There are no limits on what government can regulate because we have accepted the notion that there are no limits to the benefits government can and should bestow upon us. Fifty percent of health care is paid for by the government—including universal health care for all of us over 65. Your trans-fat laden donut today could mean higher taxes for me in the future. Ditto for smoking and other risky behavior.
The pervasiveness of government power over our lives is so complete that at times it becomes invisible. Today only the most obvious and egregious violations of our liberty seem to get people riled. For instance, Californians rebelled at the idea of government control over their thermostats, but Americans have in the main meekly submitted to massive social engineering in their daily lives.
Americans have made a bargain with the devil. Dispensing with the idea of limited government in realm of benefits has meant dispensing with the idea of any limits to government power at all. Once we accept the notion that government should ensure that our pursuit of happiness succeeds, we have accepted the notion that government has the right to define what a happy life should look like.
Limiting government power requires limiting the benefits that government can bestow upon us, and right now that seems a bridge too far for some Americans. The revival of the conservative movement will not depend upon conservatives making peace with the welfare state, as some are arguing. It will depend, instead, on tapping into Americans’ uneasiness regarding the encroachments of the State into more and more aspects of our private lives.
Can conservatives succeed in convincing Americans that government benefits, and hence power, should be limited? Perhaps. But only if they remind Americans (as Barry Goldwater did) that a government big enough to give you everything you want is one big enough to take away everything you have.